San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point have always been among my favorite Southern California communities. With history that dates back to the founding of the United States, relief from summer heat, a very pedestrian-friendly downtown, and a stunningly beautiful and rugged harbor front, these two South Orange County towns in some ways represent the Southland at its best.
On July 9, I visited both communities in one day on foot, walking 15 miles round trip using the San Juan Creek trail system to easily and safely traverse the miles of open space between the beach and the mission area.
A Metrolink Adventure
My day began around 7 a.m. in Riverside. Taking advantage of the $10 round-trip weekend discounted fare, Metrolink was the obvious choice to let someone else do the driving and relax while enjoying the scenery.
It took about two hours to get to Downtown San Juan Capistrano by rail.
But once there, the action begins immediately, since the train station is right in the heart of downtown and just over a block from the historic mission.
From the train station, a left on Verdugo Street leads to the Los Rios Historic District. This shaded route with shops, restaurants and private residences dating from the 18th century is a particularly peaceful and beautiful spot.
I spoke with the homeowner of the Rios Adobe, the longest continuously-occupied private residence in California. Dating from 1794, the home has been passed down through the generations in this Spanish American family. The homeowner told me that not having a mortgage has its trade offs: A nearly three century old home with two acres of property has no shortage of maintenance and repair costs!
Visiting California’s Most Iconic Mission
All 21 of the Spanish missions along the California coast are unique and memorable. But having visited eight, I must say there is something special about Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Founded in 1776, the mission is as old as our country. Just a few days after Independence Day, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like on July 4, 1776, in the Spanish Southwest.
The museum displays, historic excavations, and picture-perfect gardens and architecture at Mission San Juan Capistrano are truly second to none. It is arguably the best preserved historic site on the West Coast. Any Southern Californian should visit at least once and it is a great stop to add to an itinerary if you’re visiting the Golden State.
As a school employee, I got in free, thanks to Teacher Appreciation Day, which honors school faculty and staff with ID on the second Saturday of each month. I visited with a friend who teaches special education at Redlands Christian Lower School.
If you’re an educator or recent student, you might recognize some of the spots around the mission from your textbooks. The bells, fountain and koi pond, arched outdoor hallways, and the remains of the earthquake-damaged church are often used in school books when discussing the Spanish aspects of early America.
In 1811 and 1812, massive earthquakes struck what is now the western and central United States. Among the most notable temblors were three quakes approaching Magnitude 8 centered near New Madrid, Missouri, in the nation’s midsection.
At San Juan Capistrano, a quake on Dec. 8, 1812, collapsed the church during midweek services. More than 40 people lost their lives. The structure has remained in its semi-collapsed state ever since, a monument to the architectural abilities of the Spaniards and the destructive power of earth’s geologic forces.
From SJC to Dana Point
After a healthy lunch, I began the more than five-mile walk from Downtown San Juan Capistrano to Dana Point. Beginning at the Trabuco Creek Trail off Del Obispo Street, the gravel path soon intersected with the paved San Juan Creek trail system, which is popular with bikers, especially those with the latest electric bikes.
The San Juan Creek trail system extends nearly 20 miles from the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains to Doheny State Beach.
Unlike along many paved riverfronts in Southern California, this route is relatively safe, with few homeless. But be careful with the steep drop-offs and watch for bicyclists that move fast!
Along the way, I saw a few of San Juan Capistrano’s world-famous cliff swallows, which inhabit the region from March to early autumn. With urban development, you’re most likely to see the birds along the creek. Walking at a moderate pace, it took about 90 minutes to reach the ocean.
Dana Point Harbor By Foot
A shallow marine layer kept some low clouds and fog into the afternoon on the day I visited, making it particularly pleasant to explore Dana Point Harbor.
For swimmers and waders, there are two options here: The long sandy expanses of Doheny State Beach and the much smaller Baby Beach popular with families in the sheltered harbor.
The rest of the area is a yachtsman’s paradise, with hundreds of sailing and motorboats.
Unfortunately, a childhood memory of Dana Point Harbor is now history. For years, schoolchildren would visit Dana Point to learn about maritime history on board the Pilgrim, an old 19th century tall ship. In 2020, while the world was focused on pandemic news, Dana Point lost its most well-known symbol when the old boat sunk in the harbor. The remains of the ship have been removed from the harbor.
The Ocean Institute still offers marine education programs, with a hands-on museum on local and global aquatic life.
And as always, the cliffs are spectacular, and quite reminiscent of Normandy, France, where 80 years ago Allied troops arrived to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.
Refreshed by the cool weather and wading in the chilly waters of the Pacific, it was an easy walk back on San Juan Creek and Trabuco trails to San Juan Capistrano, where I caught the last train back to Riverside.
Here’s the video overview of my journey!